The Death of Actaeon

The subject of this painting approximately follows Ovid's account in the 'Metamorphoses'. In revenge for surprising her as she bathed naked in the woods, the goddess Diana transformed Actaeon into a stag and his own hounds attacked and killed him.

This is probably the picture referred to by Titian in a letter of June 1559 to Philip II of Spain, in which he says he hopes to finish two paintings he has already started, one of which is described as 'Actaeon mauled by his hounds'. In fact most of the work may date from the mid-1560s.

Paintings decoded
Artist John Lessore and Restorer Jill Dunkerton: 'The Death of Actaeon'
4 mins 8 secs
Transcription

John Lessore: In the whole history of art, Titian is my favourite painter and in the National Gallery, this Titian of Diana and Actaeon is my favourite painting. It used to be the Bacchus and Ariadne, but this one has supplanted it. Actaeon quite unwittingly stumbled across Diana bathing in the nude and saw her.

Lizzy McInnerny: Diana dashed some water into the face of the intruder, saying, now go and tell, if you can, that you have seen Diana naked. The hero fled. He could not but admire his own speed, but when he saw his horns in the water, he groaned and tears flowed down the face which had taken the place of his own. When he hesitated, the dogs saw him. He fled and they followed. He longed to cry out, but the words didn’t come. Presently, one fastened on his back. Another seized his shoulder. They were all around him, rending and tearing. It was not until they had torn his life out that the anger of Diana was satisfied.

John Lessore: In this painting, you see he has just started, he’s still a man except for his head, but that’s enough for the dogs. They’re already beginning to tear him to bits. He is no longer their master. He is now their victim.

Jill Dunkerton: The X-ray of 'The Death of Actaeon' shows the most extraordinary number of changes. Sometimes you can make out one of the hounds that we still see in the final painting, for example, that head there, but if you look, there are many more hounds in the X-ray than there are in the painting itself.

There’s a lot of discussion and disagreement about whether a painting like 'The Death of Actaeon' is actually finished. I personally think that at this late stage of his career, Titian himself didn’t necessarily know when pictures were finished. It isn’t lacking any of the final glazes, any of the systematic build-up of colour that you get with earlier pictures and, indeed, with Titian’s earlier pictures, because that was no longer part of his painting process. He is now ranging over the whole surface of the picture. One moment, he is using a glaze; the next moment, he is using an opaque colour. In a sense, it’s unfinished because Titian probably never lived to decide the point at which it was going to be finished, but it’s not unfinished to me in a technical sense. It’s not an incomplete picture and to me it works completely as an image.

John Lessore: Nobody had ever painted in such an abstract, plastic way in which the emotion he is conveying is not conveyed by narrative so much as by shape and movement and colour. What he was doing was incredibly deliberate and refined. It’s just that the handling is so powerful that one gets the impression that the paint is slapped on any old how, which it’s not. It’s certainly not. This is a very late Titian. He must have started it when he was about 70, but gone on with it when he was in his middle 80s. The 10 or 15 years between starting it and finishing it... “finishing” in inverted commas because theoretically it is not finished, but I’m not quite sure that that’s really what Titian felt about it. I think that if he’d wanted to do any more, he would have.

Key facts

Artist
Artist dates
active about 1506; died 1576
Full title
The Death of Actaeon
Date made
about 1559-75
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
Dimensions
178.8 x 197.8 cm
Acquisition credit
Bought with a special grant and contributions from The Art Fund, The Pilgrim Trust and through public appeal, 1972
Inventory number
NG6420
Location in Gallery